Friday, April 24, 2020
Multiple Errors on the Part of Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Michael Linfield Cited; Justice Stratton Faults References to Report by Former Supreme Court Jurist Moreno
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The Court of Appeal for this district declared yesterday that “a series of grave errors” on the part of Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Michael Linfield in a gender discrimination case, evincing his bias in favor of the plaintiff, requires the reversal of a $13 million judgment against The Regents of the University of California.
Justice Maria Stratton of Div. Eight wrote the opinion. It strips Dr. Lauren Pinder-Brown—now a professor in the Division of Hematology/Oncology of the UC Irvine Medical Center Department of Medicine—of a court victory based on alleged mistreatment while a professor of medicine at UCLA.
It was a close case, Stratton said, and it can’t be said that the judge’s rulings and comments to the jury were harmless.
Fair Trial Denied
“Unfortunately, the trial court committed a series of grave errors that significantly prejudiced The Regents’ right to a fair trial by an impartial judge.
“First, the court delivered a presentation to the jury highlighting major figures in the civil rights movement, and told the jury their duty was to stand in the shoes of Dr. Martin Luther King and bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice. Second, the court allowed the jury to hear about and view a long list of discrimination complaints from across the entire University of California system that were not properly connected to Dr. Pinter-Brown’s circumstances or her theory of the case. Third, the court allowed the jury to learn of the contents and conclusions of the Moreno Report, which documented racial discrimination occurring throughout the entire UCLA campus. Finally, the court allowed Dr. Pinter-Brown to resurrect a retaliation claim after the close of evidence despite having summarily adjudicated that very claim prior to trial.
“These errors were cumulative and highly prejudicial. They evidence the trial court’s inability to remain impartial and created the impression that the court was partial to Dr. Pinter- Brown’s claims.”
The “Moreno Report” was one prepared for UCLA in 2013 by retired California Supreme Court Justice Carlos Moreno. It dealt not with gender discrimination on the campus, but racial and ethnic bias.
Stratton noted that Linfield did bar admission of the report into evidence, on the basis of it being hearsay, but declared:
“This, however, was wholly insufficient because Dr. Pinter-Brown was able to coax the content and conclusions of the Moreno Report out of multiple witnesses. Secondary evidence of a document that is hearsay is ‘no more admissible’ than the document itself, ‘which is to say, not at all.’…The court abandoned its duty to ensure UCLA received a fair and impartial trial when it allowed the contents of the irrelevant and highly prejudicial Moreno Report—which dealt with discrimination outside of Dr. Pinter-Brown’s protected class—to come in through a series of leading questions by her attorney and the answers thereto.”
She characterized as “inexplicable error” Linfield’s action in placing before the jury Pinder-Brown’s cause of action for retaliation which had already been decided in the defendant’s favor, saying:
“The court had already adjudicated the retaliation issue. To put it before the jury at the eleventh hour constituted an ambush.…
“It was contrary to law and manifestly unfair to UCLA to allow Dr. Pinter-Brown to argue retaliation to the jury after the issue was summarily adjudicated, and then to imply UCLA’s failure to defend against the retaliation claim during oral argument was itself evidence of retaliation.”
Comments to Venirepersons
Attached to the opinion is the transcript of Linfield’s remarks to prospective jurors in which he tells of the fight for civil rights, including gender equality, interspersed with three videos: two snippets of speeches by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and a portion of a summation to the jury by Gregory Peck portraying attorney Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
He spoke of King, Susan B. Anthony, Rosa Parks, Cesar Chavez, Harvey Milk, and others.
The lawyer for UCLA moved for a mistrial, saying that Linfield “lauded this country’s struggle with discrimination on the basis of a number of protected bases, including gender, through the highlight of individuals who stood up for themselves against others including governments and institutions.” This, the lawyer argued, created a “great risk” that the prospective jurors were “preconditioned” to determine the facts in favor of the plaintiff.
Ethical Violations Cited
Linfield denied the motion, saying he gives the same talk to all prospective jurors.
Stratton accused Linfield of violating Canon 3B(5) of the Code of Ethics which requires that a judge “perform judicial duties without bias or prejudice” and to desist from uttering remarks that could be perceived as reflecting bias or prejudice. She also charged that he breached Standard 10.20 of the California Rules of Court’s Standards of Judicial Administration which requires each judge to “preserve the integrity and impartiality of the judicial system” by seeing to it that courtroom proceedings “are conducted in a manner that is fair and impartial to all of the participants.”
“Here, the trial court’s remarks to the jury violated these principles and gave the appearance that the court was partial to Dr. Pinter-Brown’s causes of action.”
Stacking the Deck
Stratton went on to say:
“[T]he remarks of the trial court here were not an impartial call to duty; they were a resolute and stirring call to action which stacked the deck against UCLA. It was a grave error for the court to begin a gender discrimination trial with a presentation highlighting the great achievements our nation’s civil rights leaders have made toward creating a world free of discrimination and telling the prospective jurors they were carrying on that quest. Although particularly prejudicial in a discrimination case, we believe the court’s comments and call to action are inappropriate in any case. This error was but one of a series of errors that prejudiced UCLA and rendered the trial fundamentally unfair.”
The case is Pinter-Brown v. The Regents of the University of California, B290086.
Representing the regents were Barbara A. Fitzgerald, Kathryn T. McGuigan, and Jason S. Mills of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius and Eric A. Shumsky, Jeremy Peterman, Jessica Perry, Elizabeth Moulton and Evan Rose of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe. Carney R. Shegerian and Jill P. McDonell Shegerian & Associates were attorneys for Pinter-Brown.
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